The small brick building has a playground outside. Inside, shelves are lined with children’s books, and toys are strewn all over the carpeted play area. With the guidance of her teachers, Melanie will increase her use of English and learn to read many of those books that fill the rooms. No wonder she’s excited to go.
Johnson City Even Start focuses on helping families read better so they can meet their educational and parenting goals. While parents go to school, Even Start functions as an educational day care. Children learn English and reading skills, along with basic life skills such as potty training, personal hygiene and social interaction.
Beceria is striving to get her GED and is thankful for the program.
“It’s been helping me a lot,” Beceria said, looking down at her lap, where a smiling Melanie sits. “She’s been learning a lot. She doesn’t want me to do a lot of things [for her]; she wants to do them herself.
“I’m happy to be here. I like the program.”
Also enrolled in school are Euridice Rodriguez and her daughter, Aylin. Rodriguez says the program helped her once shy daughter become more interactive.
“Before we came here, she used to use a pacifier. … She didn’t speak too much,” said Rodriguez, who attends English classes while her daughter is at school. “Now, she is speaking more and playing more with older children.”
Helping a child understand another language is difficult.
“When our children come to us, by and large, they have almost no English,” said Kathy Osborn, director of Even Start. A major goal of the program is to prepare the children, currently ages 2 to 4½ , for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes.
“They come into us when they’re very young,” said Lisa Moor, an early childhood teacher at Even Start. “The first hurdle is getting them to listen to you in English.
“Getting the children up to a level where they are comfortable in English and school environments is difficult,” Moor said. “We want them to be comfortable with their home language and comfortable with English. … That’s the challenge.”
The government-funded program encourages plenty of interaction time between parents and children. But, the national Even Start, which offers grants to pay for local family literacy projects that help low-income families, has been threatened with budget cuts. Lawmakers have reduced funding from a high of $225 million in 2005 to $66 million for 2010.
Even Start parents must be eligible for services under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act. Books and learning activities are distributed to many families in the community, and parents must show an interest in not only their own education, but also the education of their children. Children tend to learn faster and better when parents are genuinely interested in their education.
“All of the moms that are here [in the program] really want their kids to do well and succeed,” Moor said. “It gives the whole family a different focus on education, that they all want to do well.
“That’s not always true in public school. You know, you have parents who don’t worry that much about the education of their kids because they’re not involved in education [themselves]. But when the parents are being educated … the kids perform so much better. Education is important in the home.”
Speaking English fluently is important to the parents at Even Start. To maintain a good relationship with her daughter, Rodriquez said, she must speak English well.
“It’s kind of hard for us,” she said, smoothing her daughter’s curly hair. “We speak Spanish at home. My [goal] is to speak English. That way, when my daughter grows up, I can be close to her.
“[I want to] go to the school and participate with the other parents. You know, just be in this culture, American culture. … We go outside and here is America. Everybody speaks English. You have to learn a new culture and speak English if you want to be here.”
Rebeca Chocron, who came to the United States from Venezuela 14 years ago, enrolled her two children, then 2 and 4, in the program after it was recommended to her.
“I was studying English and I couldn’t go to class because I didn’t have anyone to [watch over] them,” said Chocron, who has since finished her schooling and is now employed by Even Start. It’s the only day care that involved the parents and the children, she said.
Chocron is a translator for English for Speakers of other Languages, or ESOL. She makes home visits to families enrolled in Even Start. She also helps deliver books, learning materials and activity packets for the parents and children to complete together.
Literacy and education are necessary for everyone, Osborn said. The Even Start program not only serves the Hispanic community, but also encourages anyone from any background to join the program, which is free to those eligible.
“We’ve had a lot of different cultures [come] through the door,” Moor said. “Just seeing the whole family progress and become a cohesive unit, a stable unit in America, is really a rewarding thing. “There comes a point when it clicks in, and that’s the really cool thing to see.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing them come in, nonverbal in two languages, even in their home language, and go out verbal in two languages.”
For more information about Johnson City Even Start, call Director Kathy Osborn at 423-232-4634.
Above, left: Students at Even Start enjoy healthy snacks before their naptime. Right: Euridice Rodriguez and her daughter Aylin at Johnson City Even Start. Photos by Alexandra Ingraham.